They all came back to our local houses of worship--our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples--for a brief visit in the hours and days immediately following the September 11 destruction. And then just as quickly they dispersed again, returning to routines where organized religion had no real place.

That's the short version of the story. And it is tempting to leave it there, as many of the experts have done: it was all a momentary blip on the religious screen with no lasting significance. But I think that is too simple.

For one thing, the "blip" theory focuses primarily on the fact that the folks who flocked to worship soon went their own ways again. But that ignores an important question: Why did they flock in the first place? I know at least some of the folks that we're talking about. They are the people who like to say, "I don't belong to any church, but I still consider myself a spiritual person." And they mean it. They buy read books about meditation. They listen to the Celestine Prophecy tapes as they jog. They regularly play CDs of real monks chanting. If the local bookstore sponsors an evening discussion about The Tibetan Book of the Dead, they will show up.

None of this was quite enough for them, though, when September 11 happened. They wanted to join other people in a well-defined sacred space: They needed pews, a choir with robes, and a prayer book to hold. They wanted ministers, priests and rabbis to point them to mysteries that are best described in words and symbols that come from those who walked the ancient paths.

I like Pascal's observation that each of us has "a God-sized vacuum" inside us, a spiritual hunger that can only be satisfied by a relationship with our Creator. That's why I don't simply dismiss the interest in free-floating spirituality. The spiritual seekers of our day are naming the hunger. But I don't believe that a personalized designer spirituality is enough. I'm a Christian, and I believe the hunger can only be truly satisfied when we repent of our sins and accept God's offer of salvation in Jesus. And this means going to church regularly.

I'm not surprised that people flocked to places of worship last September. For me it is evidence of the hunger that resides in each of our souls. We saw our citadels of economic and military strength instantly destroyed, and our deepest impulse was to flee to the only true places of safety--"the shelter of the Most High" (Psalm 91:1).

Nor am I surprised that many stopped coming when the initial shock subsided. The religion I care about is a serious matter. God wants us to to confess our sins on regular basis, and to plead for the grace to live in obedience to the divine will. None of this sits well with our sinful impulses. It is easier to put together a spiritual package that makes fewer demands on us.

I suspect that some of the people who returned briefly to traditional places of worship realized that they were entering spaces in which much is required of them. They realized that they could not just dip briefly into the spiritual resources available there without making a new commitment to a life of faith. So they left with a resolve never to return. Others probably were content to treat the experience as an exercise in spiritual tourism. They took what they thought they needed at that point in their lives and simply ignored what did not fit into their own self-charted spiritual journeys.

All we can do is to hope that some seeds were planted in the deep places of their lives, seeds that will eventually grow into a flowering faith that brings them back to the sacred spaces.

But there are also important lessons for people like me--who were there in church before September 11, and who are still there. Many of us discovered something new in our own hearts--a yearning for a community that was bigger than we had experienced before. As an evangelical, I have often looked at folks with different beliefs than mine primarily in us-versus-them terms. That is understandable: I have strong convictions about what is true about God and the world, and the issues are of eternal significance. In the aftermath of September 1l, though, I felt a strong need to be together with my fellow citizens from very different traditions, and to join them in shared spiritual exercises that do not come easily to me. And I was not alone in this; witness the Missouri-Synod Lutheran clergyman who is in trouble with his conservative denomination because he participated in an interfaith prayer service.

My theology hasn't changed in any fundamental way because of September 11. But I have a new sense of solidarity with people whose convictions are quite different from my own. Of course, this, too, is a matter of deep conviction. I always knew as a matter of theology that all of my fellow citizens are created by the same God, and that is an important fact about them. In the past year, though, I have come to feel this in a new way. And in feeling this I have learned something new about my own God-sized hunger.

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